FORT POLK, La. — Some ways of life have changed in this challenging time — hugs; shaking hands; standing close to one another; large gatherings at parties, concerts, festivals and church.
Fort Polk’s Main Post Chapel has had to take that reality and find creative ways to continue supporting and connecting with its congregation. The perfect example is Vacation Bible School.
Chrissa M. Gross, Fort Polk’s religious education director, said before the pandemic restrictions began, the church had already planned a couple of VBS events to which the congregation, especially the kids, were looking forward. Those events had to be cancelled.
“I think people went through a grieving period over what has been lost due to the pandemic,” she said.
Gross said that sadness is what motivated the Main Post Chapel’s religious education team to focus on coming up with an alternative VBS.
“We wanted to figure out what we were capable of offering to our congregation based on the technical equipment we have. A hybrid VBS program was the result,” she said.
The Main Post Chapel staff created a VBS program that combines chapel-sponsored online content with supported Family-based activities.
“The VBS is partially online via a closed Facebook page or Youtube video link, whichever each Family prefers to use. The online content is portable and can be easily accessed through a smart device such as a phone,” she said.
Brianna Roberts and her children have taken advantage of the virtual VBS and the fact that they can take it anywhere.
“My boys have both loved doing the VBS at home. We are visiting family right now and being able to continue learning God’s word has been amazing,” she said.
Gross and her team held an adult VBS for parents July 7-11 to deliver the basic schedule for new content.
“This allowed us to equip parents with the information they needed to help guide their children through the virtual VBS,” she said. “It also gave us a chance to connect with them on a larger scale as we guided them through the lessons we would be teaching their kids. It resulted with parents gaining the skills to walk their kids through the age appropriate devotionals at home, while making a spiritual connection.”
The online VBS program for kids began July 14 and will actively continue publishing content until Aug. 14. The content will remain up through the end of August, said Gross. Sessions are held Tuesdays and Thursdays for grades pre-K through sixth.
Content includes crafts, music and dancing, and Bible stories delivered with age appropriate content. The VBS content also includes virtual field trips.
Gross said her religious education team has partnered with community members and Soldiers for tours. The religious education team also figured out how to mesh each tour with the overall lessons being learned at VBS. The Bible themes woven into the VBS content include topics that touch on Jesus as a strong foundation.
“We use the foundations of love, forgiveness, worth, promise and life to connect the underlying truths of the Christian faith,” said Gross.
Some past tours included “46th Engineers clearing the way for a foundation” and “When things go boom! Building a foundation with a limestone quarry in Missouri.” The next tour, scheduled for July 27, is “Bonding together with the 46th Engineers,” which deals with welding.
The August schedule is all about safely getting outside and having fun.
VBS is hosting a scavenger hunt Aug. 3-7. Posts throughout the installation are marked with task for the child to complete. Gross said each Family gets their own code for the scavenger hunts.
“We have built five websites coordinating back to the curriculum that have scan code sites (QR codes). Families visit the site, find the scan code, interact with the website and complete the task associated with it,” she said. “Then, they put the photos of completed tasks on the group page for scavenger hunts, and they tag it with their code. We are monitoring on the other end. Families that complete all the tasks get a pizza dinner delivered to their home to celebrate a successful mission,” she said.
Held Aug. 10-14 is an anvil hunt for VBS kids. Gross said the hunt incorporates the “tools of the faith at home option” by building on God’s tools. This lesson was designed for Families that are not confined indoors.
Gross said she, the church staff and volunteers miss hearing little feet in the chapel. “We can’t play big, crazy or fun games at VBS or dance and sing with the kiddos,” she said.
However, Gross said there have also been some benefits to providing a virtual VBS. “Not only are we supporting Families during this difficult time, but we have also been able to discuss with parents how to provide spiritual leadership within the home and what resources are available to them,” she said.
Gross said her team worked hard to gather the materials kids would need to participate in the virtual VBS. Once the kits were filled with VBS goodies, chaplains delivered them to participating Families.
“We physically delivered kits to homes as far as Rosepine and Anacoco. The bags had craft supplies, stickers, bracelets, activity booklets and more. It was just a bag full of fun,” she said.
Another benefit to the hybrid VBS was a flexible schedule.
“Families are better able to access and participate in VBS on a convenient schedule that works for them,” said Gross. “If a Family has missed a couple of weeks of the virtual VBS, they have the opportunity to join in anytime and catch up, because the registration and content is based on a revolving timeline. It’s a huge benefit, especially to Families just getting to Fort Polk due to a permanent change of station. The virtual VBS is a great way for new Families to plug in and connect to the Fort Polk chapel community.”
Gross said many people are thankful for the hybrid VBS program and the support of the church in these tough times.
“It allows kids to see familiar faces and interact with us through the computer, as well as encouraging Families to do the VBS activities together. That’s something they don’t normally get to do. It’s been an incredible journey; and so far, we’ve had a positive response,” she said.
Catharine Malinowski and her Family are participating in VBS.
“We are taking things one day at a time, but we are loving VBS. It triggers a whole day of new play, and we are building forts and singing the songs every day,” she said.
Gross said creating this experience has been unexpected, trying and fun all at the same time.